Joe Bonsall could be described as a composer. From being one of the musically inclined singer-songwriters of the Oak Ridge Boys to Joseph S. Bonsall, author of feature stories that intrigue the reader. While at a tour stop in Renfro Valley, KY, Bonsall recently spoke about his book, G.I. Joe & Lillie: Remembering a Life of Love and Loyalty.
The book is a very touching story of World War II veterans, Private First Class Joseph Sloan Bonsall Senior of the United States Army and Corporal Lillie Maude Collins Bonsall of the Women’s Army Corps. Both of their lives intertwined with their relationship and perseverance is an inspiring story. They are now buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Describe your relationship to Cracker Barrel?
The relationship between the Oak Ridge Boys and Cracker Barrel has been phenomenal for us. They have done a lot for us and we’ve done some things for them. “It’s Only Natural” is a huge selling album for us and a big thing for us. For them to put G.I. Joe and Lillie as part of their American Heritage Celebration, I was shocked and did not see it coming. I love to say that we had this big plan to putG.I. Joe and Lillie in Cracker Barrel, but we didn’t. I had no idea this was going to happen. The fact that they did and they love the book, to me is a tremendous honor. This book was written in 2003. And yet, it keeps gaining legs. Something keeps happening to helpG.I. Joe and Lillie move forward.
What has been the reaction from readers?
A month ago we sang at an event for Vietnam Veterans. It was a big deal for me. Before the thing, there was a meet and greet. We met a bunch of Congressional Medal of Honor winners. A four star general of the US Army comes up to me and says, “Are you going to sing to us about Lillie tonight?” Man if my mom knew that a four star General of the Army said that!
I also learned about the story of a lady, Vivian, that read the book only to realize that she knew my mother. She got in touch with me and sent photos that I have never seen before.
(Click here to read more about the touching story of Vivian and view the photos.)
What do you think is the biggest struggle for Veterans of war now as compared to when your parents were in World War II?
It’s just as hard. I think combat war is one of the worst things that the human body could ever put themselves through. The human mind puts themselves through it mentally and physically.
Ever been in a fight – knock down drag out physical fight? It’s an adrenaline rush that you won’t ever believe. Ever been in a car wreck and the rush of that moment? It takes days or months to get over it. For some people, it takes years to get over a bone crushing, almost death defying car wreck. Sometimes when other people are injured or killed, it’s hard to get over. It’s a mental thing. Combat is that on a day to day to day basis. The strain it takes on a mind to be taking lives and fighting for your own life is something I don’t think anyone could understand it to this day.
I know that my father went through it. When he came home, the first thing they did was put him in a hospital in Philly because he was like near crazy. He had alcohol problems all of his life. He had nightmares all of his life. War changed him. Even when he was sick and old, he had nightmares. Mommy had to wake him and hold him. He could only say a few words in the last days. What were they? ‘War. War.’
He promised me that I would never see it and he kept his promise. He told me two things: first of all it’s hell and I don’t want you to ever experience that hell. Secondly, you’re so dog gone stupid, you’ll probably get blown up on the first day there. And he might have been right (laughing).
I think our kids are struggling and our VA has a huge job ahead of them to take care of them. I don’t think they are doing a very good job of it. I’m not talking politics. I’m talking about the realities. It’s a mess and a horrible thing we put these kids through.
What is the American Dream?
I always hoped that the American dream, in my heart, was always that if you lived right, played by the rules, told the truth, honored God that you can do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be. I believe that it is the heart of all things. You’ve got to work hard. People expect stuff given to them. We do have a government that is free to give away anything. I know that nobody gave my mom and dad anything. The government was not there to give them a handout. The VA helped my dad, but I know that my mom would work three jobs to make ends meet. I know that there are people that would do the same and are struggling, but willing to work hard. I hope that the American dream is still in tact. I feel that it is. We look at Middle America every single night from the state fairs, the county fairs, and big beautiful theatres. I get a good feeling for people. I think people are still trying to be as optimistic as they can and I think better days are still coming. I really do. I think people need to focus on God and hard work.
What makes you happy the most?
For me, I’m happy the most by picking banjo on my farm after I’ve cleaned the whole place up.
When the last note is played and last song is sung, how do you want to be remembered by?
I hope people will think that he is a pretty good guy that is living his dream and lived his dream. I didn’t make a living until I was 32 years old doing this. I didn’t give up in my 20s doing this. Whenever everyone was saying for me to get a real job, I never gave up on singing. I was willing. I hope people will learn a lesson from me on that. I hope people think they enjoyed what I did. Maybe give them a good laugh, a blessing on occasion, a good book, a good word – that would be alright.
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Jessica Bray is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.